Monday, April 18, 2011

Book Review: Pulitizer Prize 2011 Winner--A Visit from the Goon Squad

 (NB: On the left is the hardcover/ARC edition and on the right is the new paperback edition.  While I find the left one more visually appealing, the abstract pb cover art I think is more appropriate to the subject.)

A Visit From the Goon Squad  by Jennifer Egan has been earning so many accolades that I finally picked it up a few weeks ago to see what it's all about.  The New York Times named it a Top 10 Book of that year and  it's also the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award (incidentally, the prize I most respect out of the "Big Three" literary prizes in the US: the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the NBCC). Today the Columbia School of Journalism announced that it is also this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction.

While I cannot say that I loved it, I can say that it's a pretty impressive and interesting novel.  What none of the reviews I read mentioned, however, is that it seems to be less a cohesive novel than a full length work of disjointed stories.  The key characters are so randomly interspersed throughout the book that it took more than a little effort to keep up with them, though admittedly that might have more to do with my attention span the week I read it.  In most cases I just write up my own little cast of characters and chart them, but I didn't care enough about these people to do that. The book's description tells us that Bennie and Sasha are the main characters, but since they don't actually appear in most of the book, I'm not sure I agree with that assessment.  Mostly the book jumps back and forth in chronology and we get various back stories and future stories for Bennie and Sasha, which means we're hearing more about their parents, children, uncle, spouses, bosses and significant others than we do about Bennie, a music mogul, and Sasha, his erstwhile assistant. 

Along the way, Egan takes us for a ride through American pop culture with sidetrips to Africa for a safari, to Naples for a look at the city's underbelly, and to NYU for reasons that remain obscure to me.  We get alternating first, third, and even second person points of view (used with only limited success) and sometimes it takes longer than it ought for the reader (and I figure I'm at least as astute as most) to figure out just who the heck we're dealing with and where (and when) in the overarching chronology of the book we are.

Which is not to say I disliked the book or think it's not good, despite the bizarre section near the end that is done in the style of a Power Point presention, presumably to show how an autistic child named Lincoln sees the world visually and compartmentally.  By the time I closed the book and reflected on the ride Egan took me on, I was left feeling like this really is a novel of our time, reflecting the disjointedness and fragmentation of our society--and that is, ultimately, what the Pulitzer Committee is looking for ("For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life," according to the website).

Egan's prose is always serviceable and occasionally elegant.  Here's a short passage that I liked, which I'd say is pretty representative of her style: "But eventually a sort of amnesia had overtaken Susan; her rebellion and hurt and melted away, deliquesced into a sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way that life would be terrible, Ted supposed, without death to give it urgency and shape."  I think this may be the first time that I've encountered deliquesce as a verb, and it's a word worth using.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is, for me at least, a more interesting read than a great one, but I am quite glad that I went along for the ride.  I recommend it for people who don't mind working a little bit at their novels and for those looking for something a little off the beaten track in terms of narrative and structure.

What about y'all?  Have you read this one yet?  Do you think it is deserving of the many accolades and awards that it has received so far?  Do you think other books published in 2010 are more worthy?  What has been overlooked, in your opinion? I'll put myself out there and say that I am disappointed that Karl Marlantes' mammoth novel Matterhorn wasn't at least shortlisted for any of the big awards, but I'd love to hear *your* opinion now!



mohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

Thanks for the comment, Mohit. If you do pick up this book, I certainly hope that you enjoy it!

Sverige said...

In Jennifer's Egan's lively and inventive novel - A Visit From The Goon Squad - each character feels his or her mortality. Each is in a tenuous danse-a-deux with time and aging, otherwise known as "the goon."